Elizabeth Trevannion: Foster Mother of the Future King Charles I

by JoHarrington

There is something so wonderfully bad-ass about the Jacobean noblewoman Dame Robert Carey. Particularly how often she put King James in his place!

Sometimes personalities just leap through the intervening centuries and make you smile.

When I was writing so much about the Jacobean period for Wizzley, I kept encountering the wife of the first Earl of Monmouth. Elizabeth Trevannion knew her own mind. She preferred it to minds which society might deem greater - like that of the reigning monarch.

At a time when women were supposed to be the silent, docile vassals of their husbands and fathers, Lady Elizabeth Carey argued with kings over the parenting of princes. And won.

No Takers for the Fostering of a Sickly Stuart Prince

There would be a lot of English nobles kicking themselves a decade later, when the weakling Prince Charles suddenly became heir to the throne.

When the tiny and sickly Prince Charles Stuart first arrived in England, no noble family in the kingdom wanted to take responsibility for him.

This gives the measure of just how certain that just about everyone was that the infant would die.  He could barely walk, though he was three years old.  He hardly uttered a word; and all that he did manage was garbled with a stammer.  He was weak and feverish, so much so in fact that his royal parents had left him in Scotland, when they'd come south in 1603.

It had been thought that he wouldn't survive the journey.  But he did.  On a litter, with a nurse in constant attendance.

If Charles had been any ordinary toddler, with a lesser ranking mother, he would have been the clingy sort.  Shy, retiring and wracked with anxiety for all his tender years, it pained him dreadfully whenever he was separated from Anne of Denmark.

Which was all a shame, as he was a prince and ruling families did not raise their own children. It was a matter of national security, not having everyone in the same place in case people like Guy Fawkes turned up to blow you up.  It was an issue of distraction - who can run a country, when you have screaming kids around you?

But it was also a traditional way of tightening the bounds between monarch and nobles.  An aristocrat entrusted with a royal child was one who was close to the throne.  It was a guarantee of loyalty; and also of gaining more power.

Which only worked if the prince didn't then go and die on you.  Such circumstances could lead straight into the Tower of London instead.

With healthy Prince Henry and Princess Elizabeth already safely positioned with two of England's most elite families, Prince Charles was the only remaining route to Stuart foster favor. It's a measure of how terrible a prospect that seemed, once the flocking noble crowds had instantly flocked away again upon sight of him, that he was left without any takers.

Until Elizabeth Carey had a quiet word with her husband; and Sir Robert said yes.

The Sick Child by Hannah Newton

Learn about how ill children were nursed back then.

What was Wrong with Young Prince Charles?

At the time, no-one really knew.  The best physicians in Scotland and England had examined the ailing infant and hadn't made a proper diagnosis.

In fairness, rickets wasn't identified until 1645; and it wasn't linked to vitamin deficiency until 1919. It was therefore a little premature of any doctor in 1604 to be accurately diagnosing and taking steps to cure the prince.

They did know about scurvy; and a cure had been identified in Newfoundland, but that was only amongst ignorant natives, so nobody paid it any attention. We'd have to wait until 1742 for a Westerner to catch up with the program. Again all too late for poor Prince Charles.

And if you're wondering how a member of the royal family could possibly suffer from lack of nutrients and vitamins, remember he was only a toddler.

Noble ladies were not wet-nurses. There were peasants for that; and they didn't tend to have the best diet, particularly the women.

The Desperate Measures of Sir Robert Carey

When one bid to become close to the new monarch failed, Robert Carey had to try something drastic. Like taking on the sickliest of the Stuart princes.

Sir Robert Carey didn't come from nowhere. He was the son of Baron Hunsdon and the second cousin of Queen Elizabeth I.  But he wasn't the most highest ranking of all nobles.

By 1604, many of the aristocrats in Britain were very sniffy about him.  He'd witnessed the death of the queen, then disobeyed the orders of the Privy Council by immediately riding to Scotland to be the first to tell King James.  Several horses had died and been replaced along the way, Carey had gone so fast and hard.

While this may have made him favorable in James's view, it did not recommend him to all of those nobles who hadn't been the first to introduce themselves to their new monarch. In order to keep them happy, King James had to dismiss Carey as Gentleman of the Bedchamber - an honor he'd been given because of that news.

So now, a year later, with powerful people looking down their noses at him, Carey had some lost ground to recover.  This is why he even contemplated taking on Prince Charles.

It was a gamble which paid dividends.  Not only did the prince survive, against all odds, but became heir to the throne upon the death of his previously hale and healthy brother Henry.  Charles eventually became King Charles I; and remembered his upbringing by instantly conferring upon Carey the Earldom of Monmouth.

His father hadn't been backwards with the honors either.  In 1611, Carey became Master of the Robes; in 1617, he was given the title Chamberlain to Prince Charles; then, in 1622, he became Baron Robert Carey of Leppington.

By now the Careys were one of the most powerful aristocratic families in the land; and it was mostly all down to that red-headed Celtic lady, Elizabeth Trevannion.

The 1st Earl of Monmouth and his Family by Paul van Somer

Elizabeth Trevannion, Dame Carey, Countess of Monmouth, is the red headed lady second from the left.
Image: Lord Robert Carey and family
Image: Lord Robert Carey and family

From l-r:  Henry, later 2nd Earl of Monmouth (eldest son); Elizabeth, Countess of Monmouth; Robert, 1st Earl of Monmouth (holding the Chamberlain's Rod); Philadelphia Carey, later Lady Wharton (daughter); and The Honorable Thomas Carey (youngest son).

Memoirs of Robert Cary, Earl of Monmouth

This is a pre-1923 historical reproduction that was curated for quality. Quality assurance was conducted on each of these books in an attempt to remove books with imperfections ...

View on Amazon

Elizabeth Trevannion: Celtic Heiress of Caerhayes

The future Elizabeth Widdrington came from Celtic stock. Her mother was Welsh; and one look at her surname would tell you that her father was Cornish.

Sir Hugh Trevannion came from a family which had grown rich in tin mining, at Cannamanning, in Caerhayes, near St Austell. They now held Caerhays Castle and sixty acres of land; and it was still producing tin.  He had married Sybilla Morgan, from Monmouthshire (modern day Gwent).

Elizabeth Trevannion was born in 1563, presumably in Caerhayes Castle, in Cornwall. Like many Elizabethan women, she married young.  She was only sixteen or seventeen years old, when she moved to Northumbria, as the bride of Henry Widdrington of Widdrington Castle.

Elizabeth Widdrington: Beautiful Cornish Bride

Just a teenager, Elizabeth Trevannion became the mistress of a huge castle on the east coast of Northumbria. The region was plagued by raids from Border Reivers.

Henry and Elizabeth married in July 1580, but there is no record of children. In fact, the Parliamentary biographies state that Sir Henry died childless. (With thanks to KB - in the comments - for this information.)

Their nephew - another Sir Henry Widdrington, son of the former's youngest brother Edward - would later inherit his uncle's estates; and be answerable to Sir Robert Carey.

In 1592, Elizabeth's husband Henry died.  Sometimes it's not what you can see directly in history, but the ripples out which tell a story.  We can work out that there was something quite alluring about the widowed Elizabeth Widdrington. Sir Robert Carey wasted no time in rushing her to the altar, at great political loss to himself.

He was in a good position.  His paternal grandmother was Mary Boleyn (better known to us as The Other Boleyn Girl), so his family was in favor with Queen Elizabeth I - Mary's niece. Carey had been sent into Northumberland to keep the peace between England and Scotland; as well as taking on the problem of the Border Reivers.  He was extremely successful at it, mostly through diplomatic means.

It was here that he bumped into Elizabeth, but they weren't strangers. His mother was Anne Morgan, sister to Sybilla, so Elizabeth Widdrington was his cousin.  Carey was also a Welshman, born in Monmouthshire.

Queen Elizabeth I learned that her second cousin wished to marry the widow, and she forbade it. Sir Robert Carey married Elizabeth anyway.  He gained nothing from the union - her Northumbrian estates passed immediately to her son upon his father's death - except the utter displeasure of his monarch. 

Given how ambitious Carey was later to appear - rushing to Scotland to court favor with King James, then taking on Prince Charles - it says a lot about Elizabeth Trevannion that he was willing to sacrifice his good standing at court to have her as his wife. They married in Berwick-upon-Tweed on August 20th 1593.

Learn about the Border Reivers

Elizabethan and Jacobean Northumberland was right on the border with Scotland. It could be a violent and semi-lawless place.

Elizabeth Carey: Elizabethan Wife and Mother

There were at least four babies in the first ten years of her second marriage. A bit of a concern, when she was already thirty years old.

The last decade of Elizabethan times must have been worrying for the Careys. It appears that Carey had to leave control of the Borderlands in the care of the Widdringtons, while he retired home to Wales.

Not only were they now politically locked out of power, but there was the whole issue of childbirth.

Elizabeth Trevannion was thirty years old when she married Sir Robert Carey.  By the standards of the time, that was a risky age to be having children.  Many women did die in labor and the older they were, the more dangerous the birth.

Nevertheless, the couple had four children.  Philadelphia was first.  She was born in Monmouthshire in 1594, just a year after the wedding. Henry was born in Denham, Buckinghamshire, in 1596.  There's also a Richard Carey, whose birth details I can't uncover; and who doesn't appear on the later family portrait.  He might slot in here.

Thomas arrived in 1604, the year that Prince Charles joined their household, in Westminster, London; though their son was actually born in the East Marches, back up on the borderlands of Scotland.

As the moving about reveals, Queen Elizabeth did relent eventually; and the Careys returned to Northumbria until she died and James took the throne.

Those connections with Widdrington Castle did come in useful, as the Jacobean royal family progressed down to England.  King James stayed there en route, which no doubt caused great excitement for young Sir Henry!

Read the Sir Robert Carey Mysteries by P.F. Chisholm

The Northumberland adventures of Robert and Elizabeth Carey have been fictionalized in this series of Elizabethan Whodunnits.

Dame Robert Carey: Queen Anne's Privy Chamber

Looking after the sweets of a queen meant that Elizabeth Carey had a front row view for all that went on at court, including the arrival of a poorly prince.

It's uncertain whether Lord and Lady Fyvie, at Dunfermline Castle, were courting favor from their absentee monarch, or just wanted rid of the dangerously weak little boy.

Prince Charles Stuart was only two years old, when his parents and siblings had left for England. They had assumed that he wouldn't live and, even if he did, he'd be too sickly to ever travel too far from home.

Now he was three and the Fyvies caused their physician to send glowing reports of the prince's progress to King James.  According to them, his 'loose joints' were practically healed. He was walking up and down the gallery unaided.  Overjoyed with it all, James asked Sir Robert Carey to go and fetch Charles.

Carey knew at a glance that it had all been lies. He was later to report that the toddler 'was not able to go nor scant stand alone, he was so weak in his joints.'  Nevertheless, he escorted the infant down to London and witnessed all of the noble ladies along the way melt back, as soon as they too grasped the situation.

Carey himself hardly rushed to volunteer to foster the child. He delivered him safely to his royal parents, then took himself home to Elizabeth and their own kids. By now, their status had risen somewhat, as evidenced by the fact that it was Carey whom James had sent to collect Charles. 

Also Elizabeth had been awarded a title in Queen Anne's Privy Chamber.  She was Mistress of Anne's Sweet Coffer.  It was a role which handed her the keys to the queen's 'sweet' treasury, but that's nothing to do with candy!

The deep caskets would have been filled with expensive herbs, spices and perfumes; and inside would be accessories, like gloves, lace, fans and other such trinkets. Lying alongside the pungent aromas, these items would pick up the scents too.

That appointment gave Elizabeth her own rooms at court.  She was in the perfect position to watch what happened with the tiny royal invalid.

Many people at the time reported that Charles was Anne's favorite son, but she was sharp with him too.  She took his infantile speech impediment to be obstinacy and frequently scolded him for it. That naturally made his stammering worse.

I wonder if Elizabeth Carey spoke up then.  She certainly did with the King later.  It appears to have been in her nature to have said a few words to Queen Anne (pictured) about how to treat her own son.  Maybe it was diplomatically stated, one mother to another - after all, Elizabeth did have three children under ten years old and a baby in her arms.

But then, there's no record of this; and perhaps I shouldn't speculate at all.

What would have been apparent was the awkwardness.  A royal prince needed a foster family.  It was traditional.  The fact that no-one was stepping forward was embarrassing to the point of rudeness; and there would only be so long before King James would have to command someone to do it.

Elizabeth Carey had seen enough.  It was time for a word with her husband.

The Final Two in the Sir Robert Carey Mystery Saga

Buy these stories to discover what all of the fuss is about. Robert Carey and Elizabeth Widdrington appear as semi-fictional historical figures here.

Old Dame Dob: Protectoress of a Prince

No other woman wanted the job. Elizabeth Carey told her husband to go and get Prince Charles Stuart. She was equal to it all.

There's a pervasive tale that the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill is about a thwarted attempt, on the part of King Charles I, to gain extra taxes on beer.  The second verse mentions the bruised Jack going to see Old Dame Dob, who patches him up with vinegar and brown paper.

If Jack is indeed Charles, then Old Dame Dob was Elizabeth Carey, aka Dame Robert Carey (pictured later in life). 

It's difficult to ascertain the truth of the rumor, but history does tell us that he did return to Elizabeth time and time again. They were close.  Like mother and son, even when he was monarch; and that relationship started in 1605.

Prince Charles had barely turned four years old, when he was taken to live with the Carey family, in their new apartment in White Hall Palace, London (modern day Whitehall). It must have been a bitter-sweet period for Elizabeth. 

Not only had she got this onerous responsibility, but to sweeten the deal, their eleven year old daughter, Philadelphia, was sent to Coombe Abbey to be raised alongside Princess Elizabeth Stuart. The arrival of the prince, demanding so much attention from Lady Carey, can't have gone down well with one year old Thomas either.

Prince Charles was desperately upset.  He'd wanted to stay with Queen Anne; and his new home with the Careys meant that his Scottish nurse - who'd been with him since birth - was sent home to Dunfermline.

He made himself so ill that he was more or less instantly bed-ridden from almost the moment that he arrived. It didn't look good.

Elizabeth Carey devoted a lot of time to him.  She gained the little boy's trust and began to work on building up his confidence.  Prone to panic attacks, even at four, the priority was psychological care.  His family didn't help matters.  His brother, Henry, Prince of Wales, seemed to delight in making the boy cry with cruel comments about his prospects and physicality; and his mother seemed convinced that Charles was just being stubborn in his weakness.

Displaying a seemingly infinite supply of patience, Elizabeth helped Charles string together sentences which weren't lost in stammering.  It took years to accomplish, but he got there.

Just not fast enough for King James.  The boy's father decided that the problem lay in the position of Charles's tongue.  He sent a physician to cut beneath it.  Elizabeth Carey refused to allow the surgery to take place.  She went immediately to see the King and told him outright that it wasn't going to happen.

King James bowed to her judgment and recalled the physician. 

Alongside this was the little boy's painful gait.  He could hardly stand, let alone walk, at four years old.  When he was created Duke of York, at the end of 1605, a courtier had to carry him through the ceremony.  James's plan was to fit him with iron boots to build up the strength in his legs and joints.

Elizabeth Carey told him no.  James backed off.

Instead, she had some stiff boots made to fit out of Spanish leather.  They were hard wearing and helped steady the infant's ankles, but without being too heavy to wear.  When Charles was well enough to be out of bed, he had them on his feet. 

Elizabeth helped him gradually build up his steps until he could actually walk.  It was genuinely painful for him, as the rickets made his bones so fragile.

She'd found another trick too.  Charles panicked under criticism, but became anxious to please under praise.  She used well delivered encouragement to keep him pushing beyond what all thought were his limitations.

In later years, King Charles I would be deservedly proud of the challenges that he overcame in his infancy and childhood.  He gave all credit to both himself and his foster mother.  It had been a brave journey for both.

Books about King Charles I

Between the ages of just gone four and nearly twelve, Prince Charles Stuart was under the supervision of the Carey family; but mostly Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, Countess of Monmouth

As soon as Charles became monarch, he rewarded his beloved Careys. Sir Robert became the 1st Earl of Monmouth with Elizabeth as his countess.

When Henry, Prince of Wales, died of typhoid, Charles was only seven days shy of his twelfth birthday.

No-one had expected him to get so far.  His health and fitness were now transformed under Elizabeth Carey's care, but he still wasn't what most people had in mind for a monarch. 

Henry had had it all - sportsmanship, brilliance in military practice, charisma, intelligence, health.  His brother Charles was... well, he could walk perfectly well now; and most of his sentences were uttered without stammering.

But he wasn't an intellectual giant of his father's ilk, nor full of cultural grace and artistry like his mother.  He was rather serious, filled with Anglican theology and a sense that he would never be good enough.

Anne of Denmark went to pieces.  Even after Charles was taken from the Careys to be raised as monarch, he still returned to Elizabeth for anything close to motherly advice.

This was to continue even into adulthood.  When his marriage faltered at first, Charles went to Elizabeth.  When Parliament were repeatedly telling him no, Charles went to Elizabeth.  Her calm common sense saw him through a lot of issues; and he always came out with his confidence boosted.

Maybe it's reading too much into it all to note that the English Civil War didn't kick off until a year after her death.  Maybe Charles could have done with one last long chat, before he did something stupid, like try to arrest people for treason in the House of Commons. 

But then his arrogance always had covered up a deep shyness and inferiority complex.  With Elizabeth gone, no-one else ever seemed to quite suss that, not even Queen Henrietta Maria, who simply encouraged him to act regal.

Which was all to end on the scaffold, outside his childhood home with the Careys of White Hall Palace.  Charles I became the first and last English monarch to be executed by his subjects; and ironically, in his final speech, he never once stammered.

Kings and Queens: King Charles I (1600-1649)

Read More about the Stuarts in England

November 5th 1605 was always so much more than Guy Fawkes blowing up Parliament. Assuming that he had lit the fuse, would there have been a Catholic Uprising?
If the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded in 1605, Princess Elizabeth would have been abducted and made queen. She was only nine years old.
James I of England died on March 27, 1625. His reign was seen as good and bad, depending on the books you read. One thing is for certain, his death led to a difficult reign.
On January 30, 1649 Charles I was executed. He was the first King of England, Scotland and Ireland to be executed and would be the last.
Updated: 06/16/2014, JoHarrington
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Cece on 08/30/2016

If Henry and Elizabeth had no children, then how could her Northumbrian estates pass immediately to her son upon his father's death? Was Elizabeth his only spouse?

JoHarrington on 06/18/2014


KB on 06/18/2014

Nicely edited!

JoHarrington on 06/18/2014

You've got me curious now. I'm going to go digging through my actual history books to see what I can uncover. Probably not much. People are generally more interested in the Carey marriage.

I've added it in for you. <3 The records I skimmed over were in Ancestry.co.uk

KB on 06/17/2014

Hi - There are two things can think of. 1 -The marriage was not harmonious. 2-He was infertile.

I think that crediting the HoP is the way to go but if you like please feel free to say that I pointed you at that source. Which family records are you looking at? That would be helpful to me.

JoHarrington on 06/16/2014

You raise a very, very good point! I've just done a little more digging myself, in the ancestral records and I believe that you're right. I'm going to alter this article accordingly and credit you, if you don't mind.

Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention.

It really does make us wonder why no children though. As you said, Elizabeth was able to conceive - hence the children later with Carey - but why not then? Was Widdrington infertile, or not at home?

KB on 06/14/2014

Hi - The House of Parliament online bio for the Henry in question is my starting point for whether Elizabeth and Henry had children. See: http://www.historyofparliamentonline....

'His uncle, Sir Henry Widdrington, also exercised the shrievality, and for more than a decade held the post of knight-marshal in the county's principal garrison town, Berwick-upon-Tweed. Widdrington's father Edward was a younger son, who apparently owned only the town and castle of Swinburne, just north of Hadrian's Wall. However, when Sir Henry died childless in 1592, Widdrington inherited his broad estates in the south and the west of the county......'

What do you think?

I am wondering why he would die childless if married to Elizabeth, who later had at least (?) 3 children, for 12 years - unless he was infertile. As knight-marshall for Berwick, he would have reported to Elizabeth's uncle Henry Carey, married to her mother's sister Ann Morgan.

JoHarrington on 06/14/2014

The plot thickens! As far as I was aware, Henry was the son of Henry and Elizabeth, so this is new information for me. What are your sources? Perhaps we can work it out together. :) Thanks for the heads up.

KB on 06/13/2014

Hi - The research I have done shows that Henry Widdrington the younger was the son of Roger Widdrington not of the Henry married to Elizabeth. I am trying to ascertain if Henry Widdrington and Elizabeth Treviannon had any children.

JoHarrington on 12/01/2012

You're welcome! She just fascinated me. There were high powered princes who wouldn't talk back to James, but she did from a very precarious position at times. You've got to respect that.

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